est eng 2024/1 international special pages! See: Nils Ohlsen "Konrad Mägi and Die Brücke at the Baltic Sea – just a coincidence or a phenomenon?"


Estonian women in Finland or who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Andreas Trossek (1/2019)

Andreas Trossek visited Liina Siib’s solo exhibition "Politics of Paradise".


16. II–14. IV 2019
Tallinn Art Hall
Curator: Taru Elfving.

Liina Siib has always been an artist ahead of her time. Yes, I know it's a cliché for an art critic to say some artist is ahead of their time. Thereby hinting that the "person ahead of their time" has also worn some kind of martyr's crown, paid the inevitable price for this innovation – either receiving less attention in society or less attention in the art market than expected. The same familiar "narrative of the avant-garde" known to us from art history, the slightly derisive praise addressed to the artist, which simultaneously criticises their "blind" contemporaries – but why, why does anyone need this nowadays? But that's inescapably how it seems looking at the genesis of Liina Siib's work to date, that she is metaphorically always two steps ahead of the society around her. Or even three.

When Liina Siib graduated with a diploma in printmaking from what is now the Estonian Academy of Arts in 1989, she was probably expected to continue the then famous tradition of Estonian women printmakers of the 1970s and 1980s. The official regime at the time was the Soviet Union, the specific sector within this the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. The only possible artistic media for someone like Liina Siib at that time were the various traditional printmaking techniques. Many graduates from the printmaking department also found employ in the state publishing industry because many books were published and someone had to design and illustrate them. However, Liina Siib was one of the first printmakers of her generation with a diploma who started to boldly utilise photography, video art and installations in their exhibition practice.

In 2011, Liina Siib represented Estonia at the 54th International Venice Biennale with the solo exhibition "A Woman Takes Little Space". Two years earlier, in 2009, she had held a solo exhibition of the same name at Hobusepea Gallery in Tallinn. The thematic impulse for this was an article in an Estonian daily newspaper that spoke about "serious things" in a serious manner: that an adult woman does apparently need less space and less money for their everyday work than their male colleagues. Gender pay gap? That was apparently an illusion. There are certain jobs in contemporary society (e.g. kindergarten teacher, cinema box office attendant or secretary in some city office, etc., etc.) that are generally filled by women precisely because, apparently, they need less space and less money to exist because every "ideal" model family will have a man (read: husband, father, brother) who will pay for everything anyway, so it doesn't matter.

Unfortunately, I can't state here with the benefit of hindsight that Liina Siib's "A Woman Takes Little Space" caused some kind of discussion in Estonian society, which led to some kind of change. It didn't. Yes, there was the art quarterly KUNST.EE, there was the cultural weekly Sirp and there was certainly other media coverage, which I apologise for not naming here. Having said that, it would be honest to admit that the "sugar daddy" discourse still rules in Estonia in 2019: in art and higher education as well as in the field of research. "Get yourself a rich man!" was the answer my foreign colleague recently received from an Estonian university rector, when she had asked during employment negotiations why she would be paid so little for a whole semester of lectures. What should a woman have done in this situation, if they were single or with some undisclosed personal status? Let it be said that no agreement was reached.

Now I will finally get to Liina Siib's solo exhibition "Politics of Paradise" at Tallinn Art Hall. It's a good exhibition, the designer Kaire Rannik has done a good job. My favourite part is the design for the series "A Woman Takes Little Space" (2007–…), which highlights rather well the female heroes of this literally "social realist" series of photographs, albeit no longer in the mural format following the "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" mantra known from the Soviet era. On the contrary, the photographs have been assembled in a corner of the exhibition space at Tallinn Art Hall, as if signalling that nothing has changed – that indeed, "a woman takes little space" even in the current atmosphere of neoliberal global capitalism, where development is designated by the market. The curator Taru Elfving is from Finland, and even that is justified because as part of the Estonia 100 programme Liina Siib had initiated the visual study "Estonian Women in Finland" (2016–…), which centres on women who have left Estonia in recent decades to live and work in Finland. The subject touches upon both Estonians as well as Finns.

That is also precisely a subject I would like to read more about and know more about. "Urban Symphony in E-minor" (2018), which was first exhibited at the Vana-Võromaa Museum, and then subsequently also at Galleria Sinne in Helsinki at the end of 2018, and "Come and Go" (2019) inevitably comprise the thematic core of this overview exhibition at Tallinn Art Hall. It is naturally no secret that after Estonia joined the European Union, a relatively one-sided migration of workers exploded in this region of the world: for example, according to the data of the Estonian consul in Finland, more than 33,000 women of Estonian origin have recently worked in Finland. Indeed, mostly in hair and beauty salons, as cleaners or painters in new real estate developments, but also as highly paid doctors among others.

But who would be able to add up all these statistics, which remain unseen under the visible tip of the iceberg. As one of my acquaintances told me: the situation in Võru County, for example, and probably other small cities is such that whole families are even moving to Finland, Sweden or Norway. At first, one of the parents goes, then the other follows for a holiday and eventually the whole family moves there. Logically, a shortage of workforce remains behind. On the one hand mega-urbanization, on the other hand, the loneliness of the ones left behind. This is precisely the sort of thing people don't talk about much in Estonia. Although they should. Again, Liina Siib seems to have taken two steps ahead of society. Or even three. But is anyone listening to her?


Andreas Trossek works as the editor-in-chief of KUNST.EE.

Tallinn Art Hall exhibition view
Photo by Karel Koplimets

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